Since the rise of the internet, there have been plenty of people predicting the steady decline of mainstream journalism. As people consume more content online they are unwilling to pay either to buy newspapers or to access firewalled content, except for specialist titles such as the Financial Times or The Economist. The result? A huge drop in the number of journalists employed in the newspaper industry – in the US numbers have dropped from over 55,000 in 1990 to under 40,000 today.
However, we are actually consuming as much, if not more, news than ever before. Much of this is in different forms, such as via social media or through news videos. The latest Pew Research Centre State of the News Media report found that a third of Americans now watch news videos online, rising to half in the 18-29 demographic. There’s also been an explosion in the number of digital news firms, creating 5,000 US jobs.
What’s interesting is that these companies are evolving fast. Rather than simply competing with traditional news sources by rehashing stories (or putting out controversial click bait headlines in the case of sites like BuzzFeed), they are investing in original content. Star journalists are being poached from top newspapers, lured by the opportunity to write longer articles without daily deadlines and with greater editorial freedom. Part of this growth is financial – launching a credible digital news site is relatively cheap, around $5m in the US for example.
And the Pew report finds that consumers are getting more involved in the news. 7% of Americans have posted their own news video to a social network or established media outlet and half of social media users share or comment on articles.
The difficulty for traditional publications is two fold – they are still running a print newspaper which has huge fixed costs, while consumers are much less loyal. They’ll click on a link on social media, irrespective of (or not even knowing) its source and then, once they’ve read it, leave the site without necessarily checking out other stories. In the UK the picture is skewed by the credibility and power of the BBC, which has successfully embraced the digital world, helped by its guaranteed funding through the licence fee.
So, what can newspapers do to evolve and change? From what I can see they have five options:
1 Put up a paywall
Given that people spend money on newspapers, why shouldn’t they pay for online content? Hence the rise in paywalls. However with a fickle readership, getting people to commit requires content that they truly can’t get anywhere else, which in turn necessitates investment in journalism, or extras such as Premiership goals in the case of The Sun. It works when the content is original enough or the subscription deal is compelling. On the downside paywalled content is a lot more difficult to share socially, so the overall reach of the title drops as well.
2 Make a go of advertising
Sounds easy – write good stories and advertising will flood in, both in print and online. In theory yes, but we’re back to the fickle readership and the increased competition for advertising pounds. Only those publications that really differentiate themselves (such as the Daily Mail and The Guardian) have grown their online audience enough to deliver a strong advertising revenue. In the print world, the Evening Standard has been able to transition from a paid for to free model, but it has been helped by having an owner with deep pockets.
3 Find a sugar daddy
With newspapers suddenly cheap, there’s been a rush of billionaires investing in them, either as a vanity project, something more sinister or simply because they can turn them around. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, bought the Washington Post, the Boston Globe is now owned by Liverpool FC owner John Henry and Warren Buffett has purchased a whole stable of titles. Even the aforementioned Evening Standard is owned by billionaire Evgeny Lebedev.
4 Become a brand
If you can build a strong reputation for content, you may be able to transform yourself into a global brand. That’s the aim of The Guardian, which has made its name around the world by breaking stories such as Edward Snowden’s revelations. At a more local level it explains the rush of local newspaper groups into local TV, enabling them to share resources and cross-promote.
5 Get someone to write it for you – for nothing
Blog-based sites such as Mashable and the Huffington Post started out without much in the way of original content, but built themselves on contributed blogs. They’ve now expanded to create many more of their own stories, but the model – attracting interesting, informed bloggers looking for the oxygen of publicity – still works equally well on other sites. Both sides benefit, so provided the content is good it adds to a site’s appeal.
Most newspapers have looked at all five of these ideas (some all at the same time), but with varying degrees of success. However, as the Pew report shows, journalism can flourish in the digital age – it just may not be appearing in traditional media outlets.
Jobs wax and wane in popularity and, while quite a lot of this is down to salaries or how interesting they are, their public image also has a big input. For example, mention you’re an accountant to someone and a mental picture of a grey man/woman in a grey suit pops immediately into many people’s minds.
So, taking this to its logical conclusion, which profession has the worst public image in the UK – essentially who is most loathed by the country as a whole? I’m taking out politicians as that’s too easy a target, but looking at what’s left, they seem to fall into two groups. There are those professions that are belittled for not doing their job properly, where the Daily Mail (and politicians) use the failings of a few to tar a whole group with the same brush. I’m thinking of social workers, doctors, nurses and teachers, where, often for political reasons, they are paraded as uncaring or uncommitted when nothing could be further from the truth.
The second group, which more people can agree on, is those that are accused of fleecing the Great British Public. So bankers, overpaid businessmen/women, footballers, bureaucrats (especially of the ‘meddling Brussels’ variety) and highly paid lawyers fit into this category. What’s interesting is that none of these people make physical things – vilified businesspeople tend to be fat cats presiding over service industries/shutting down manufacturing plants while increasing their pensions rather than the likes of James Dyson.
After the financial meltdown, I’d say that bankers topped the polls of the most loathed. Not only had they brought the world to the edge of financial ruin but weren’t contrite in any way. They still seemed to be rolling in enormous bonuses, while the rest of us were scraping by without pay rises in Austerity Britain.
But the last couple of weeks has seen a new target overtake even bankers – management at utilities companies. The combination of enormous, above inflation, rises in gas and electricity bills coupled with dire warnings about potential future power cuts have made them public enemy number one. Never a group to look a gift horse in the mouth, politicians have levelled their guns on the sector. From Ed Milliband threatening a price freeze to (of all people) John Major calling for a windfall tax on utility profits, it is open season on the industry. With a growing percentage of household incomes spent on utility costs, it isn’t surprising they are a target – even though the companies claim that a large chunk of bills goes either to the government in terms of green levies or is swallowed up by global price rises in the cost of oil, gas and coal.
But utilities aren’t helping themselves. British Gas decided to run a Twitter Q&A session on the day of its recent price rises – unsurprisingly it got more abuse than intelligent feedback. And Scottish Power has been fined £8.5m for misleading customers between 2009 and 2011. No wonder the whole industry has been summoned to appear before MPs shortly to explain themselves.
So, putting my PR hat back on, what can utility companies to improve their public image? They can’t reverse the price rises, but need to show that they genuinely care. That means no pay rises for senior management, closer work with charities that help those who can’t pay their bills and a commitment to providing better service to the rest of us. And this needs to be a long term move – not a quick PR stunt that ends after a couple of months. Only then will they be able to step away from the public eye and let others (probably bankers) take over the mantle of most loathed profession – at least until the 2015 election….